The Importance of Integrated Treatment for Co-Occurring Disorders

I was homeless for nearly a decade. I have been addicted to heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and alcohol. I have battled with a substance use disorder my entire life, but I also have mental health issues. I suffer from anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and paranoia. For years, I tried to treat these symptoms by self-medicating, and some of these symptoms were exacerbated by my drug use. I drank alcohol and abused benzodiazepines to quell my anxiety, and my paranoia was made much worse by abusing prescription stimulants and methamphetamine.

For years, I tried to find my path to recovery, and I also tried to alleviate my mental health symptoms, but I always sought treatment for these two conditions separately. I relapsed time and time again, and I would abuse the medications I was prescribed for my mental health disorders. It wasn’t until I sought integrated treatment for both conditions that I began to see any real progress with either one.

It’s estimated that around 14 million people in the United States are living with a serious mental health condition. Around 7.9 million adults in America are diagnosed with co-occurring disorders, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2014, and those who suffer from mental health disorders are much more likely to struggle with a substance use disorder.

Because people that have mental health disorders are more likely to struggle with addiction to drugs and alcohol than those without mental health disorders, it’s crucial that those who are battling both substance use disorders and a mental health disorder must seek treatment for both conditions.

According to Medline Plus, there are many mental health disorders including:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Psychotic disorders
  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder

It can be difficult to diagnose a patient who has co-occurring disorders. The symptoms from both conditions can blend together, and the symptoms from one condition often worsen the symptoms from the other. Many people also develop problems with drug or alcohol addiction from trying to self-medicate their mental health disorders. This was a huge problem for me over the years.

For those who have a dual diagnosis, integrated treatment that addresses both disorders is critical. This treatment should be given not by one single individual but by a team of healthcare professionals and specialists who understand the unique needs of patients with co-occurring disorders. Many patients need to seek out a treatment facility that specifically offers co-occurring disorder treatment.

With integrated treatment, mental health professionals, addiction specialists, and other healthcare professionals must collaborate across disciplines to develop a treatment path specific to each individual. In some cases, the patients will need to be prescribed medication for the mental health disorder. However, prescribing benzodiazepines and other addictive medications may not be the best course of action for patients who struggle with drug addiction. Every patient must be treated on an individual level.

For many patients, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is incredibly effective. This type of therapy combines behavioral therapy and cognitive therapy to identify the perspectives and also behaviors a person has that may be contributing to his or her disorder. It’s a very common treatment of many mental health disorders, and it’s also a common treatment for substance use disorder. There are different types of CBT including:

  • Family-focused therapy – This therapy is largely focused on improving relationships, and family members will actually participate in therapy sessions with the patient.
  • Interpersonal therapy – With interpersonal therapy, the main focus is communication. Patients learn how to get their own needs met while also respecting the needs of those around them.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) – DBT is often used to specifically treat suicidal thoughts and behaviors in patients.

It’s important to remember, though, that it isn’t enough to just treat one disorder in patients that suffer from co-occurring disorders. Personally, it wasn’t until I began to seek treatment for my mental health issues that I was able to find a real path to recovery from my addiction to drugs and alcohol. And for millions of other patients all over the country, the answer also lies in more comprehensive treatment.


Photo by Curtis MacNewton on Unsplash